Archives – The Deadly Reality of Eating Disorders

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The associated death rate in 15 to 24-year-olds women is 12 times higher than all other causes for that demographic. It is estimated that up to 20 percent of anorexics will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder. Though researchers are still studying the data, it appears the mortality rate for chronic bulimia is equally frightening.

Despite meeting hundreds of people on my road to recovery, I had never faced the death of a friend until this year. In the past two months, three fellow sufferers have passed away.

I knew these young women from an online eating disorder support forum. And with thousands of members coming and going, the odds were against our group. I have been part of that community since 2003, and without their honest and unwavering support, I wouldn’t have made it to treatment in 2005. Even when I wasn’t actively posting, I tried to keep an eye on all my beautiful friends struggling with this ugly disease. Some are healthy and no longer need an Internet message board to stay sane. Many are still there, six years later, fighting for recovery. Others have gone silent without an explanation. Though we hope for the best, that they got better or bored, we know the thing that brings us together could also end our lives.

Sadly we know exactly what happened to Jenn, Katrien and Jen. One of these young women was undergoing treatment for leukemia when her kidneys and liver failed. Weakened by years of bulimia, her organs could not take the stress of a blood marrow transplant. The other two took their own life.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for anorexics. For many years, doctors blamed this on frail bodies being unable to withstand even the most halfhearted attempts. But a recent study attributes the high death rate to the use of extremely lethal techniques with a low rescue potential. Hanging, taking a drug overdose and jumping in front of a train were the most popular methods. Whether you weigh 90 pounds or 290 pounds, it’s unlikely you’ll survive getting hit by a train.

Why is suicide the answer for so many? The toll that a chronic eating disorder takes on your body, and more importantly your mind, is devastating. More than a diet gone awry, eating disorders are a deadly disease with no proven cure. People struggle for years to develop a healthy relationship with their body and food, but only a third fully recover. When you see no end to the pain, the logical solution is to end it yourself. If you’ve been slowly killing yourself for years, it is much easier to take that last step on to the railroad tracks.

Farewell Jenn, Katrien and Jen. I hope you have finally found peace.

Archives – The Link Between Eating Disorders and Vegetarianism

A new study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association indicates adolescent vegetarians are more likely to have an eating disorder than their peers.

The study was designed to investigate the relationships between vegetarianism, weight and dieting behaviors in teenagers and young adults. Researchers found that 15 to 23-year-old vegetarians had healthier dietary intakes and were less likely to be overweight. The active vegetarians also displayed a higher incidence of disordered eating behaviors, including restriction, binging and purging. The highest risk group was young adults who’d formerly been vegetarians, with 27 percent displaying symptoms of an eating disorder.

The popular interpretation of this study has been an attack on adolescent vegetarianism. Admittedly any diet that allows you to reject an entire food group can be manipulated to benefit an eating disorder. Vegetarianism can also be a convenient excuse for someone looking to minimize or skip meals. In these instances, refusing meat is used as a method of restriction, which is distinctly different from vegetarianism motivated by morality or health concerns.

So I feel compelled to state the obvious – just because an eating disordered person is a vegetarian, it doesn’t mean they follow a vegetarian diet because of their eating disorder. Yes, I am a vegetarian, and yes, I am a recovering bulimic and anorexic. I began cutting meat out of my diet when I was 11 years old, before I had an eating disorder. My vegetarianism continues to be an ethical choice and has nothing to do with weight loss.

However I do think my vegetarianism and eating disorder share a common trait – thinking beyond the plate. In a society that encourages inhaling mass-produced junk food on a daily basis, conscious eating is a rarity. Very few people actually contemplate what they put in their mouth or how it will affect their body. Such blind consumption contributes to a slew of health issues, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. To be aware of where your food came from, to consider the impact it will have on your body, is exceptional. At its best, this attitude leads people to adopt a vegetarian diet. At its worst, this awareness contributes to a destructive mental illness.

It makes sense that people with eating disorders would also have moral opinions about where their food comes from. When you spend hours and days and years obsessing about the effect food has on your body, you are going to think about the food itself. You consider the ingredients, the processing and ultimately the origin. Spend enough time pondering these answers and vegetarianism is practically inevitable. But that does not mean the vegetarianism is disordered, it merely means the disorder helped bring you to vegetarianism.

Even when they coexist, a vegetarian diet and an eating disorder do not need to be codependent. You can recover from an eating disorder without consuming meat. My treatment team was very respectful of my beliefs. They helped me setup a meal plan that incorporated alternative sources of protein. One staff member even made special trips to the natural food store and brought me black bean burgers every week. They proved it was possible to refrain from meat while learning to eat again.

If you are a concerned parent, please realize that adolescent vegetarianism is not an eating disorder. It can be a very healthy and responsible diet. If your child decides to become a vegetarian, try to actively support that choice. Engage them in a conversation. Discuss their motivations and highlight the beneficial impact this can have on society and their long-term health. Then help your child eat a balanced diet. That may mean cooking special meals, or better yet teaching them to cook meatless dishes themselves. But don’t make them feel guilty about their choice. Mixing food with shame is a guaranteed recipe for an eating disorder. Support their decision now and you’ll build the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.

Archives – Valerie Bertinelli and the Bikini Body Disorder

Like baseball and BBQs, attaining the perfect bikini body has evolved into an all-American pastime. Starting with spring break and extending through Labor Day, women and girls across the country strive to lose weight, tone their tummies and find a flattering swimsuit. We must earn our fun in the sun with a suitable figure.

Our nation is once again in the grips of bikini body disorder. So People magazine is patting itself on the back for putting a 48-year-old TV star in a two-piece bathing suit on the cover. And while this editorial decision does challenge one ideal, the article staunchly supports another. The Valerie Bertinelli story is merely a glorification of weight loss. Thanks to a rigid diet and exercise routine, the actress was able to whittle her figure down to a stereotypically accepted size 6. Apparently middle aged women can be sexy, but they have to drop 50 pounds first.

This wasn’t Bertinelli’s first People cover. In April 2007, she earned that honor for her public declaration to slim down. “I need to do this in front of millions of people so I can’t mess up,” Bertinelli said. “It is freeing because I can say it first: I know what you’re thinking – I’m fat.” According to the current issue, she rarely made public appearances at her high weight of 172 pounds. This is obviously a woman with serious body image issues. But two years and a Jenny Craig endorsement later, she’s bearing it all on the beach, promoting herself as a health and weight-loss activist.

Because age is one of the ways our society discriminates against women’s bodies, the story initially appears inspirational. “A bikini? I’m too old for bikinis!” cries Bertinelli. “Then I realized, Wait a minute. Why not a bikini?”

But the article quickly devolves into a glorified diet ad. At times, it goes a step further, eerily echoing eating disorder rhetoric. “I’m just one jalapeno popper away from being 40 lbs. heavier again,” says Bertinelli. She adds that every time she looks in the mirror, “My eyes go immediately to the parts I don’t like, the jiggly bits.”

This type of story reinforces extreme dieting and negative body image. Bertinelli claims, “We all just need to appreciate our bodies for what they are, jiggly bits and all.” Yet she could not do that herself. Not only did she diet down to 132 pounds in nine months, she got down to 123 for the photo shoot, hiring a personal trainer and restricting her calories to rock bottom levels. Now she vows to “stay vigilant” and keep working on her waistline.

Far from a tale of body acceptance, Bertinelli’s bikini quest exemplifies our twisted obsession with losing weight. It supports the cliché that no matter how old you are, no matter how much you’ve accomplished professionally or personally, there is always room for improvement. And for American women, that improvement starts on the scale.